Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a series of viruses that can cause genital warts, abnormal cells, and certain types of cancer.
It’s passed through skin-to-skin or genital contact.
HPV is very common —
Most people who get HPV are in their late teens and early 20s, but anyone at any age who’s sexually active is at risk for HPV infection.
But just because it’s common doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be cautious about it. Several strains of the virus can be responsible for serious complications, like cancer.
Certain people should test for HPV, which can be done in a doctor’s office. You can also purchase at-home HPV test kits.
While HPV tests are important, doctors only recommend females between the ages of 21 and 29 get an HPV test if they have an abnormal Pap test.
HPV is very common in this age group, but most infections go away on their own. Regular testing might not always provide useful results.
Instead, women 21 to 29 should get regular Pap tests (Pap smears). A Pap test doesn’t detect HPV, but it can show one significant symptom of the infection: abnormal cervical cells.
If results come back “abnormal,” then your doctor can decide if an HPV test is needed.
If a Pap test shows abnormal cells, an HPV test may be ordered to check for the presence of the virus. Your doctor may also run an HPV test along with a Pap test if you have a history of HPV or previous cancerous or precancerous lesions.
Additionally, women over 30 should get an HPV test every 5 years along with a Pap test.
Symptoms of an HPV infection can take years — even up to a decade — to show up. A Pap test may detect the abnormal cells, but an HPV test would be needed to confirm an infection.
Why is there no HPV test for men?
Currently, there’s no HPV test for men. However, men who have an HPV infection can pass the virus to a sexual partner without knowing it.
Some doctors will do an anal Pap test on men, however, these are generally only done for HIV positive men who have sex with men.
They can also run an HPV test during an anal Pap. However, it’s not recommended, as the tests may not be sufficient for detecting HPV from this source.
For an HPV test, a healthcare provider will need to collect a sample of cells from your cervix. A pelvic exam is necessary for this.
The steps of an HPV test include:
- You will undress completely from the waist down or entirely.
- You will lie on an exam table and place your heels in holders called stirrups.
- Your doctor will insert a tool called a speculum into your vagina. This helps separate the walls of your vagina so the doctor can easily see your cervix.
- They will use a brush or a flat spatula to collect cell samples from the surface of your cervix or the vaginal canal.
These cell samples are then sent to a lab where they’re checked for an HPV infection. Results are typically back in 1 to 2 days.
What about an at-home testing kit?
At-home HPV testing kits are available, but they’re relatively new. In fact, some of them don’t detect all strains of the virus — they only look for specific ones, like the ones linked to cancer.
Still, at-home HPV testing kits may provide private, discreet testing that you can do at your convenience. These kits can be purchased online, starting at about $90.
When you have a kit, you’ll follow the brand’s suggestions for collecting a sample. You can then package the sample and ship it off to the lab. Results come back in about 2 weeks.
If your test shows you’re HPV positive, you will need a follow-up test with a doctor to confirm the results.
An HPV test is done to see if you have the strains of HPV that increase your risk of cervical cancer. Knowing the answer means you’re better prepared to make health decisions, such as whether to undergo treatment or to wait it out and see if it resolves.
Because HPV increases the risk of cervical cancer, many individuals want to know their HPV status so they can be prepared for health decisions and future tests.
Why someone may decline treatment
If left untreated, HPV is likely to clear up on its own.
This approach is called watchful waiting. During this time, you and your doctor will be observant for changes to your cells or unusual symptoms that might suggest you’re showing early signs of HPV-related cancers.
By keeping an eye out for changes, you can swiftly take action if an issue arises. You can also avoid costs and procedures that might ultimately be unnecessary.
HPV tests aren’t perfect. From time to time, people get false-positives when they don’t have HPV. Others sometimes get false-negatives when they are infected.
While the chances of this are low, they’re not zero. With incorrect information, you may take treatment steps that aren’t necessary. You may also experience anxiety and worry.
If you decide to take an HPV test, just keep in mind that:
- the virus can clear on its own
- no specific HPV treatment exists to get rid of the virus, though HPV complications (like warts, precancerous cells, or cancer) can be treated
- symptoms sometimes take years to appear
In short, you have time to figure out the steps you want to take, so weigh your options well.
At some clinics, the cost of an HPV test can be as low as $30. However, the doctor may also charge you the cost of a clinic or office visit. That will make your overall bill higher.
If you elect to have a Pap test at the same time, you may have that additional cost. What’s more, each separate STD test you elect to have could add to your total.
Insurance often covers an HPV test conducted in a doctor’s office, but very few cover the cost of an at-home test. If you have questions about what your plan will or will not cover, call your insurance company before your visit.
If you don’t have health insurance, you can call local clinics or doctors and request prices. This way, you can find an office that fits your budget and provides the services you need.
Once the test results are back, you may need to consider what comes next.
You have a negative test
You don’t need to do anything else. Your doctor will let you know when you should have your next screening.
You have a positive test but cervical cells are normal
Your doctor may want to do a follow-up test to determine if you have a high-risk strain of the virus. However, some doctors may choose to not act on the positive result yet.
In that case, they may want to do a follow-up screening in a year to see if the result has changed and if your cervical cells are impacted.
In short, you might enter a period of watchful waiting.
You have a positive test and cervical cells are abnormal
Your doctor may want to take a biopsy of your cervix. In this procedure, they’ll take a sample of cells from the cervix to study them more closely under a microscope.
They may also suggest a colposcopy. In this procedure, they will use a magnifying lens to take a closer look at the cervix.
Depending on these results, your doctor may suggest removing areas of the cervix that have abnormal cells, if possible.
HPV is a common type of sexually transmitted infection. In fact, most sexually active people will have some strain of the virus at some point in their lives.
Some strains of HPV are linked to serious conditions like cancer of the cervix, anus, and mouth. That’s why testing for HPV is encouraged in females throughout their adult lives.
An HPV test may be uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t be painful. It could even save your life.
Talk with a doctor if you’re interested in having a screening. You can walk through your options for testing and what happens when the results come back.